It’s the day after. What do you do?
We’ve just had this great amazing experience at Sinai, earthquake, lightning, God spoke to us. We’ve had a mass revelation, a moment of incredible enlightenment, but what is the next step? Now that the mountain is calm again, the skies are clear, the horn silent.
What are the Israelites thinking the next morning as they wake up into their new lives? God spoke to them and changed their lives forever. They have a mission, a purpose, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. But how? How can they take it into the world? How can we take it into the world? How can they take that experience and make it tangible and concrete and part of their everyday normal life?
Our parashah, mishpatim, opens with the first collection of laws in the Torah. Not sublime, but real and very practical. Laws of slavery, laws of damages, what they called when I went to law school in England, torts, civil law, real life and concrete. Divorce, agriculture, damages. And the French commentator Rashi rushes in to tell us, why does the parashah start with ele mishpatim, these laws? ‘These’ is to tell us that they come from God, just like the Ten Commandments. That these are no less important than the experience of standing at Sinai.
Laws of what to do when your slave doesn’t want to leave after the end of their six year term. What you are allowed to do to a thief who tunnels into your home? A subject of modern preoccupation as well. How to treat rebellious children? -More harshly than we do. And what to do when you find your neighbor’s ox by the side of the road? Actually more humane than we could probably imagine –you return it.
Ways for the Jews of thousands of years ago to live a life of ethical and moral uprightness. To evolve and grow and develop. To birth a new civilization and a more refined way to live.
And from now on, much of the rest of the Torah switches from the narratives of the book of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, to laws… some that still apply in our modern life, and some that are lost in the ways of antiquity. Laws that over millennia are reinterpreted and expanded by our tradition and from which are derived how we live Jewishly in our daily lives… The ways we connect with the world around us, our neighbors, and the strangers in our midst. Laws that have become imprinted into our psyche. That even those thinkers, like Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, who did not believe that the laws apply as commandments in our day and age, still nonetheless saw them as the folkways of our civilization. They are the richness of the details, the very life of Judaism.
And the rabbis constructed the myriads of laws to regulate every moment of our day, every step to be in line with their interpretation of these commandments from God. From which shoe lace to tie first in the morning, to making tea on Shabbat. All answering the question – how to turn Sinai into a way of life? The foundation of society. And these laws became the pillars of our society but also of the Western world in general and beyond.
In Israel, in courts, they quote the Bible as a potential precedent in law.
And the rabbis, from their view, always tried to update the laws while never losing touch with their essence. They believed that living in line with the Divine Will meant understanding how the laws applied in every area of life.
But our parashah, mishpatim, which again means laws, does not end with laws. While the torah portion, right after the experience at Sinai, begins with commandments, it does not finish with them. Our parashah ends with a very curious incident. That we read about in our triennial reading this morning. The day after the experience at Sinai, Moses and the elders go up to Sinai again and according to the Torah, they behold God.
While the first time, it is only Moses who goes up and the people hear God speak and see fire and smoke on the mountain but the experience is mysterious, hidden from them. This time, God reveals Himself to Moses and the elders.
And they see a maase livnat sapir, a pavement of sapphire under His feet, a pavement that is like the very sky for purity.
What is the importance of the sapphire? The Talmud teaches us that sapphire is the color of the deep open sky and the ocean, of the techelet, the thread of blue on our tzitzit, and of the throne of Glory on which God sits.
That day, the elders and Moses saw a vision of the nature of Divinity. After the shaking at mount Sinai. God wanted to show them another side to His nature, the expansive, peaceful, and beautiful blue of the sapphire and the sky.
A lesson for what they are aiming for.
After relaying to them a set of laws in our parashah that are a summary of all of the laws of Judaism –civil laws, the holidays, Shabbat… God wanted to teach us that the purpose of all of this is to make ourselves into that sky, into that endless peace, that we cannot forget that the Divine is expansive, like the very sky for purity.
And that we are supposed to attach that vision and experience, that blue, to the tzitzit, our reminder of the mitzvot, so that we never forget why we are living all of these Jewish folkways. So that we never forget that the deepest purpose of the laws is to give us a wide open viewpoint on life, of expanding our minds and hearts to embrace all of existence.
The Chassidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev teaches that there were two traditions passed down at Sinai, the tradition of the laws, of the Ten Commandments, of the mishpatim, of the Torah. But he says that there was another tradition that was passed down, that of the experience of Sinai.
An experience that teaches us that we need to be ever more expansive, matching the nature of God at the end of the parashah, peaceful and infinite.
That is a tradition that we cannot go without but that is all too easily forgotten. And that without it the other tradition of laws does not make sense.
What do we do the day after? We start to bring Sinai into our everyday life. But we never forget the techelet, the blue in our tzitzit, we never forget what we are aiming for. We never forget the God of the smoking mountain and we never forget the God of the maase livnat sapir. The God of peace and expanse.